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Difficult conversations?

Let's face it, we can't be change leaders without sometimes butting heads. Conflict isn't necessarily a bad thing, but how we handle it might be. John Gottman, a relationship researcher, asserts that the outcome of a relational conflict can be predicted in the first 3 minutes 96% percent of the time. While workplace relationships are obviously different in context than domestic ones (insert HR admonition here), fundamental human psychology regarding trust are universal.


Try your hand at this fun question about trust:


Which “good” trait is likely to undermine trust when a stranger perceives it?

A. Happiness

B. Warmth

C. Creativity

D. Compassion


The correct answer is D. Yikes. People trust you AND don't trust you if you show compassion. What's a leader to do?


Let's look at some of the new science on this:


A team of researchers from Facebook, University of California San Diego, and Monash University in Australia conducted a series of studies looking at the tension between compassion and integrity. Turns out, that we have a hard time trusting someone to be fair and equitable when outcomes will be hurtful towards someone. Their research demonstrated how, in a variety of contexts from financial motivations that can hurt others to delivering a bad diagnosis, people don’t trust a highly compassionate person to deliver bad news.


people don’t trust a highly compassionate person to deliver bad news

The problem is, our learning field attracts big-hearted people. We CARE about other people! Perhaps because of caring, modernized learning experts are often tagged with the responsibility of delivering bad news. For example, in the past 6 months, I have had to:

Tell someone that their work under performed expectations

Share with clients that the cause of their employee's performance issues was not what they thought it was (meaning my analysis had shown they had wasted time and money)

Report an ethical violation I had observed

Explain logistical challenges in distribution chains that a team of developers hadn't considered

Simply disagree with a colleague's opinion


And I know, that if you are trusted with anything, you have these awkward, ugly, and heart-wrenching conversations too. While the specifics vary greatly, this kind of awkward conversation always involves an ugly truth and someone who will suffer financially, reputationally, or otherwise because that truth is coming to the surface.


"this kind of awkward conversation always involves an ugly truth and someone who will suffer financially, reputationally, or otherwise because that truth is coming to the surface"

Increase trust by integrating honesty and compassion


Again, let’s turn to the researchers. Psychologists in this report point out that some of our most “go to” strategies are the least helpful.


Three common communication strategies to avoid:

· Brutal honesty, which is high in integrity, but can undermine compassion.

· False hope or encouragement, which can feel compassionate, but compromises integrity.

· Avoidance (entirely or just omitting some information), which hampers trust by being neither compassionate nor honest.


Thankfully, these researchers also identified one key for communicating high compassion and high integrity.


Focus on the long-term picture! Stop putting so much pressure on yourself to find the “right thing to say” to calm down the room or get people to support your ideas. Instead, consider the honest things to focus on that can benefit the group down-the-road. Identify targets you can work toward and provide resources for that forward motion. Researchers call this "benevolent honesty".


Which style of communication do you use most?

Applying Benevolent Honesty

While this is helpful advice in countless situations, I want to encourage you to keep it in mind when you’re facing L&D challenges. For example, do you have personnel who are not performing your expectations? Brutal honesty will lead to hurt feelings while not providing a solution. False hope will waste time and resources. Avoidance will assure you get more sub-standard work and compromise your projects in the meantime. An honest, long-term focused communication can help you clarify: what behaviors were expected vs. what is being observed. And this approach would help you set up resources and milestones so you can know that the situation is improving.


What about when you need to fix a technical situation and you struggle to get buy in? It doesn’t help to take the brutal honesty route and simply tell people that the tech you have stinks. It also won’t help to give false hopes that the new tech solution will be a magic bullet. And it definitely won’t help to avoid addressing the problem, so that your tech can become increasingly obsolete. What will help? Communicate the long-term costs and benefits from multiple sides. This kind of honesty shows that you are focused on a benevolent outcome for your stakeholders, but not oblivious to reality.


Finally, teach your team about these strategies. Help them see and understand their own inclinations toward ineffective strategies so that they can practice benevolent honesty in the workplace. Help them remember to apply it in face-to-face conflict resolution as well as virtual interactions.


Do you face workplace challenges balancing honesty and compassion? I'd love to hear about your challenges, and your solutions if you have them!

Need help? Contact me for a free consultation and let's get your organization moving in the right direction.

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